Thursday, January 31, 2013


One of the things that kids hate most about school is tests.  This is possibly (aside from social issues) what causes the most stress.  (Or grades, and grades are determined by test scores).

Recently, I watched a 10 year old girl before a Navi test.  The test was on 4 perakim.  She was responsible for pshat inside, as well as certain bekius questions.

Reading through the material once took about an hour.  Reviewing it enough times so that she would be able to answer those questions from memory would be another couple of hours.  There were tears and late night arguments.

What does studying like this achieve? 

There is a debate amongst educators as to whether there is not much point to putting mental energy into memorizing facts that can be easily looked up (Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams, Chapter 69, for example), or whether having facts at our fingertips is a vital component of knowledge and wisdom.  However you stand on this argument (and I tend towards the former, being a googlholic myself as well as a former knowledge-gobbler), we still must ask the question: Does studying for tests in this manner actually lead to the desired outcome of having more information/knowledge?

I remember reading about some studies that although students cram a tremendous amount of information into their short term memory, within 24 hours after the test, they have "dumped" it, and they no longer remember most of it.  

I mentioned to Sarah that personally, I feel that I retained a fairly large percentage of material that I studied for, and she said, "Mommy, that's because you learn by reading.  I'm an auditory learner and I don't remember most of what I study."  I believe that I also had a vested interest in appearing smart and in knowing things, so I had emotional energy driving me to remember facts.  I remember when I went to Israel for the year, there were no tests.  I had a moment of concern, wondering if I would remember what I learned, with no incentive to review and no time spent going over it until I "knew it."  But I was relieved that there would be learning without the pressure of testing.

The popular TV show "Are you smarter than a 5th grader" emphasized just how few of our adult society members actually remember the facts from the 5th grade curriculum.

So we have children spending hours doing a painful activity that does not have long term benefits.  It causes stress and prevents them from playing (an activity that has been shown to have health, emotional, social and cognitive benefits).

In truth, people remember what interests them and what is useful to them.

If the goal is testing to help inculcate the material into the long term memory of the student, it is not achieving its goal and should be stopped.

If the goal is to determine if the student knows the material, the pain, stress, and lack of accuracy ought to prompt us to look for other ways of evaluating knowledge.

giant unschooling field trip

We just got back from Israel.  We saved up for this trip for 5 years, and it was in celebration of Chana's upcoming bat mitzva.  (My ashkenaz/israeli education can never decide to call it "bat" or "bas.")

The major challenges of the trip were
  • traveling with young children, particularly a 5yo who gets wild and destructive when tired, a 3yo who doesn't like to walk and tantrums a lot, and a 1.5yo who wants to walk everywhere and tantrums
  • my husband's broken leg, 2 weeks before our trip
  • the many different sicknesses that occurred on and in the days leading up to the trip, including but not limited to: strep, an unknown virus that caused high fever and weak limbs, a full-bodied rash, ear pains, and stomach pains.
  • the long adjustment back from jetlag
The broken leg turned out to be just about no problem at all, thanks to a walking boot, and now that the many moments of public tantrums are over, I can forget them, and everyone functioned pretty well with the various ailments.  I was happy we brought a supply of painkillers, and we did buy over the counter ear drops and borrow some children's peptol bismol (which I have never used in my life before this point, but didn't want to get on a plane for 12 hrs without some form of medication).

Anyway, on to the educational part.  I planned our visit as an educational field trip.  (Sadly, Chana was so sick one day she "missed a day of school," which is so rare in homeschool and she really did miss an important part of the curriculum.)  We chose to stick close to home base, since traveling was so cumbersome.  So we were mostly in Yerushalayim, except for Shabboses.

It was great being immersed in Ivrit, and Sarah did pretty well understanding and speaking.  Chana understood a lot, and was still shy about speaking.  If we ever spent a month in the summer there, I think she'd warm up.  TV was all educational all the time ;)  The boys mostly understood when they were spoken to, though they answered in English.  I felt a little awkward speaking my American Hebrew on the streets of Israel, but people are overall pleased that we are making an effort.

A note about field trips and museums.  I have found, as an unschooler, that what I would like my children to get out of the experience is usually not the things they find interesting.  I still remember bringing Elazar to a preschool field trip that had projects and hands-on animals, and he spent the entire time drawing in the gravel.  One of the major theories of unschooling is that the child will spend time and energy pursuing what is intellectually interesting to him.  It is (says unschooling theory) disruptive to his educational growth to prevent him from pursuing what he is naturally and energetically studying.  So if his mind is fascinated by the gravel for whatever reason, he learns most efficiently and most enjoyably by doing that-- more than anything else I can entice him with.

So the children rarely look at what they are "supposed" to look at, and Chana often finds listening to a tour guide boring.

My general goals were to give the kids (whichever ones could comprehend) a sense of the land of Israel as the place divinely and historically designated for the Jewish people.  That meant showing them places where events in Tanach occurred, and showing them that it is the land centered around the mikdash and service of Hashem.

I would very much have liked to go to Chevron and shown them kever Avos.  I think the oldest 3 would have been very moved to see tangibly that our forefathers lived.  However, the tour would have been 4 hours and what we really needed was to pop in, spend 10 minutes, and leave.

We did:
  • tunnel tours (Western wall of outer wall of 2nd Temple, with a movie about how they moved large stones)
  • Southern excavations (recreating aliyah l'regel)
  • Machon Mikdash (museum where they are building the keilim in anticipation of the 3rd Temple)
  • the Burnt house museum (destroyed in fire from 2nd temple, archeological indications that it was owned by kohanim mentioned in the mishna)
  • Ir David (palace of Dovid Hamelech, Chizkiyah water tunnel, history of conquering the city, archeological evidence of treasurer seals with names mentioned in Yirmiyahu)
  • Har Azazel (probably) (where they threw off the goat on Yom Kippur)
  • the place of the confrontation between Dovid and Golyas (hehe, i feel like writing "golyat" because we were just in israel)
  • Kever Shmuel and Chana (nice for Chana)
  • the general area where Shimshon's parents lived
  • a bar kochva cave
  • eretz bereshit (where we rode camels and spoke to actors playing eliezer and avraham.  hokey but they loved the camel ride)
  • lots of restaurants (one of the fun things about Israel is that so much is kosher! so we saved up especially for that, too!  eat in the mall!  eat in the tachana hamerkazit!  eat in the airport!)
What was nice is that Sarah really got a better understanding of things she had seen last time she was there (we repeated a lot, as much of this is my "curriculum" for giving a sense of eretz yisroel as the divinely ordained place of the Jewish people).  Chana said she understands now why there is going to be a giant war if we want to build the 3rd Temple.  I'm not sure how much Chana really understood of the historical facts, but I was similarly concerned when Sarah was that age, and I can see how beautifully and meaningfully it all gelled.

We also spent Shabbos at two fairly Anglo, modern Orthodox (dati-leumi) communities, and were inspired by those whose love of Torat Yisroel B'eretz Yisroel moved them there.

It was a pleasure to be immersed in the history of Eretz Yisroel. It felt strange davening for the rebuilding of Yerushalayim, when all around me I could see a flourishing city and new buildings and commerce and growth.  Yehi Ratzon Sheyibane Beis Hamikdash Bimhera Biyameinu.
ותן חלקינו בתורתך
ושם נעבדך ביראה
כימי עולם וכשנים קדמניות

Monday, January 7, 2013

behold the magnificent creativity of your child

I have a new policy in the kitchen.  No stools.  That's because Aharon (18mo) kept climbing onto them and then onto the table and dumping my plants.  And the cleanup annoyed me.  So no stools until he has sufficient control to climb without dumping. 

This is disturbing to Jack and Elazar, who often climb on the stools to help me cook and bake.  Now they can't see.  So they've all been dragging the stools back and forth, and Aharon realized that he, too, can, with effort, drag a stool. 

Then I take it away from him and he shrieks.

Then he realized that he can use the bench in the bathroom.  He can easily carry that, and it's high enough for him to see, but not high enough for him to climb onto the table.  He can step up and get the box of cheerios from on top of the radiator.  He can climb into the sink with it.  So he's managing.

Then this morning, Jack and Aharon pulled over the giant empty jugs from the water cooler and started standing on them.

This got me thinking about Work Ethic and Diligence and Sticking to A Goal and Persevering and having the ability to keep doing something until it gets done.  Something that many people who hear about unschooling are skeptical can be achieved.

As I watched these children circumvent and circumvent my restrictions, and strive and be creative in pursuit of a goal they greatly desired (being able to reach things in the kitchen), i thought about how human beings, by nature, are absurdly innovative and ingenious at getting what they want.  (Excuse me while I remove the box of wacky macs that Aharon is opening with his teeth because I wouldn't open it for him.)  And what do many of us do?  We tell children not to be that way.  Stop that.  Don't do that.  It's annoying.  It's bothering us.  It's wild.  It's inappropriate.  It's making a mess.

What we do is slowly kill their motivation to pursue their goals.  Now they are civilized.  But not very creative, innovative, or joyous.

I'm not saying let them do whatever they want all the time, no matter what.  I'm still not allowing stools in the kitchen.  But be mindful that the creative pursuit of a goal is a beautiful thing that brings much happiness and satisfaction in life. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

unschooling davening and speaking in hebrew

So as we are gearing up for Chana's bat mitzva, as per my Rabbi's advice I am making sure she is capable of davening her basic chiyuv: shemona esrei.  (Birchas hatorah she can do because she says them before we do chumash every day.)  Her preference is to daven the maariv shemona esrei.

Since she is going to sleepaway camp this summer, it came up that she doesn't know how to daven all the different things the other girls daven.  She knows this since she went to daycamp this year.  I told her I'd be happy to help her learn any of the other parts of davening.  She declined.  Then she brought up aleinu.  "The girls all sing something after shemona esrei!"  I said I'd be happy to sing it with her until she learns it.  She said she'd rather not.  But she kept complaining about it: "And they move during it.  And they stand up.  And they bow down and I have no idea when!"

So I sang the part during the bowing: "V'anachnu KOR'IIIIIIM, u'mishtachavim, u'modim, lifnei MElech, malchei hamelachim, hakaDOSH baruuuuch hu."  I sang it in the classic tune.  After I sang it, she said, "Oh.  You bow down when it talks about bowing to Hashem.  That makes sense."

So the speaking Hebrew is extremely useful as far as unschooling goes.